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Wednesday January 25, 2012

From Great Escape to great baritone: Former PoW became opera stalwart

Decorated RCAF pilot shot down over Belgium had an epiphany, becoming devout and applying his voice to sacred music

Special to The Globe and Mail

Canadian opera singer and decorated war hero Glenn Gardiner's sonorous baritone could reduce listeners to tears. Five years ago, on Gardiner's 86th birthday, CBC radio played his recording of Jerome Kearns' All the Things You Are. Within minutes, a woman left a message on the Gardiner's family phone. "Glenn Gardiner ... you should be ashamed of yourself. Now I have to redo my makeup."

Gardiner was an original member of the Canadian Opera Company. During the golden years of radio, before the rise of television in the mid-1950s, Gardiner's was a legendary voice on CBC. One of his proudest roles was singing Falstaff in the Verdi opera of the same name, particularly since he was battling a bad case of flu at the time of the live broadcast, and had no understudy.

Gardiner never performed casually for friends, or even sang in the shower. Singing was an activity that he took seriously. It gave him a high that he found in only one other pursuit - as a pilot during the Second World War. It also sustained him during three gruelling years he spent as a PoW in Germany's Stalag Luft III, the site of the Great Escape.

Glenn Powell Gardiner, the eldest of six children, was born in a log farmhouse in Merlin, Ont., on Jan. 4, 1920. His father, Harold, a fifth-generation Canadian, was a farmer who raised corn, beets, a few pigs and a few dairy cattle. His mother, Annie, had her hands full raising her children in a log house without indoor plumbing.

Gardiner began singing at the age of three, performing sometimes in church. By Grade 10, when his soprano was deepening into a baritone, he had to leave school to help work on the farm. At 18, with war clouds piling on the horizon, Gardiner knew he'd likely join up. A favourite uncle, Floyd Banghart, an early aviation pioneer who had flown with ace pilot Billy Bishop during the First World War, suggested young Glenn get his pilot's licence. As an incentive, he offered to come up with the $125 cost.

On Aug. 15, 1940, Gardiner joined the RCAF and, on April 18, 1941, received his Pilot's Wings. Gardiner flew in 23 military operations but the most memorable, for which he received the coveted Immediate Distinguished Flying Cross from King George VI, was strafing the German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship of the Bismarck. Closing in on 100 yards, cannon shells ripped through the aircraft leaving it without controls and with fire raging in the starboard wing. Several of the crew did not survive. Gardiner leaped into darkness, felt his parachute open, and minutes later landed among the pine needles of a forest near Neufchateau, Belgium. It was there that he had a personal epiphany.

"Because he had been saved, he made a pact with his maker to be a devout man and, of course, he became famous for his voice in sacred music," says Gardiner's son Lynton.

Another member of the crew landed in a nearby tree, suffering a broken ankle. Gardiner stayed with him. The two were subsequently captured. The date was May 6, 1942. Because Gardiner was a flight lieutenant, he was transported to Stalag Luft III, a camp for officers. He remained there for three years to the day.

Initially, camp conditions were tolerable. Gardiner met other prisoners with musical backgrounds and singing became a lifeline to sanity. Meantime, a plot was afoot to construct three tunnels to escape the compound. Gardiner acted as one of many lookouts while digging ensued. He was not a candidate to escape, however, as the tunnels were narrow and he suffered from claustrophobia. Out of 79 men who crawled toward freedom, only three were successful. Seventy-six men were recaptured. Fifty of them were lined up and shot in front of their fellow prisoners.

Gardiner later told his wife, Edith: "It's the only time I felt my life was not worth anything." He would battle episodes of despair for the rest of his life.

Postwar, Gardiner returned to Toronto and began studying at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, later to become the Royal Conservatory. It was there he met Edith Meek, a 20-year-old pianist from Vancouver attending the Conservatory on a scholarship. Needing an accompanist, he met with Edith and the two were soon performing together. They never stopped. Gardiner used to joke: "The only way to get a good accompanist is to marry her." The two did exactly that in December, 1946, eventually adding a son and three daughters to their family. They were devoted to each other, celebrating their 65th anniversary four days before Gardiner died.

Like Glenn Gardiner, many of the men studying at the Conser-vatory were using educational credits from the armed forces. "Most of them had never seen an opera and didn't know stage left from stage right," Edith Gardiner says. They soon learned with the arrival of instructor Herman Geiger-Torel, who taught the neophytes how to move, how to understand the workings of a stage, even how to bow. While Gardiner was contemplating a career in radio, his teacher/mentor Ernesto Vinci plunged him into a new world of arias, and changed his mind. Gardiner became part of the Conservatory's newly formed opera school. In 1950, it became the Canadian Opera Festival, then finally the Canadian Opera Company.

Gardiner's baritone was part of early productions at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium, Hart House and the Royal Alex. True to the pact he made after crashing in the war, he devoted time to singing in churches, small ones as well as larger venues, such as Trinity United, now Trinity St. Paul, and Bloor Street United Church.

"I grabbed Glenn to be my soloist as soon as I knew he was available," says Donald Gillies, former minister and music director of Bloor Street United. "His voice had richness and warmth that he also exhibited as a person."

An abstemious man who never drank or smoked, Gardiner loved baseball with a passion, also cars. In the mid-1950s, when CBC funding for opera was curtailed, and public taste was turning toward popular music, Gardiner declined two major roles at the COC. He left his stage career for more reliable work as a salesman for Volkswagen. "On any given night at the symphony, the orchestra parking lot was filled with Volkswagens," Edith says. "They were all Glenn's customers."

Despite his day job, music continued to play an important role in Gardiner's life: In 1973, he accepted an invitation to teach at the Royal Conservatory of Music. When he retired from there in 1995, he continued teaching at home. Grandson Nathanial Evans, one of his students, says: "My grandfather was all about the passion and heart of the music. It went far deeper than any lesson could teach."

Glenn Gardiner died on Dec. 18, 2011, at Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga. He was 91. He leaves his wife, Edith, son Lynton, daughters Shirley, Anne and Louise, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

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